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Roe v. Wade


Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147 (1973), was a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that declared a pregnant woman is entitled to have an abortion until the end of the first trimester of pregnancy without any interference by the state.

In a 7–2 decision on January 22, 1973, the Supreme Court struck down an 1857 Texas statute that made abortion illegal except where the life of the mother was in danger. The Court's opinion, as written by Justice harry a. blackmun, set forth guidelines for the drafting of future state legislation on the issue. In a long and detailed opinion, the Court specified the points during a woman's pregnancy when the interests of the state in the health of the mother and of the fetus emerge. Roe established the parameters of the abortion debate for decades to come.

The case involved an unmarried pregnant woman who was at the time identified only as Jane Roe in order to maintain her anonymity but who has since publicly identified herself as Norma McCorvey. McCorvey, a resident of Texas, wanted to have an abortion, but the existing state law prevented her from doing so. She filed a lawsuit in federal district court on behalf of herself and all other pregnant women. The suit sought to have the Texas abortion law declared unconstitutional as an invasion of her right to privacy as guaranteed by the First, Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments. She also sought to have an injunction, or court order, issued against the statute's enforcement so that she might go forward with the abortion. A physician, James Hubert Hallford,

who was being prosecuted under the statute for two abortions he had performed, also filed suit against the law, as did a childless couple, the Does (Mary Doe and john doe). A three-judge district court combined the cases of McCorvey and Hallford and dismissed the suit brought by the Does on the grounds that neither of them had violated the law and Mary Doe was not pregnant.

The district court agreed with McCorvey that the law was unconstitutionally vague and violated her right to privacy under the Ninth Amendment—which allows for the existence of rights, like that of privacy, not explicitly named in the Constitution's Bill of Rights—and the fourteenth amendment. It refused, however to grant the injunction allowing her to go ahead with the abortion. McCorvey appealed the denial of the injunction to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case along with another, Doe v. Bolton, 410 U.S. 179, 93 S. Ct. 739, 35 L. Ed. 2d 201 (1973), relating to a 1968 Georgia abortion statute. The Court dismissed Hallford's case because of the pending prosecutions against him. Hallford made no allegation of any substantial and immediate threat to any federal protected right that could not be asserted in his defense against the state prosecution. Nor did he allege harassment or bad-faith prosecution by the state. Hallford's case fell clearly within the ambit of the rule announced in prior Supreme Court cases

Norma McCorvey: The Real Jane Roe

In a 1984 television interview, Norma McCorvey revealed that she is Jane Roe, the plaintiff in the most famous abortion case in U.S. history, Roe v. Wade. In 1994, she published an autobiography, I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v. Wade, and Freedom of Choice, that puts a human face on the story of Roe. In her book, McCorvey candidly recounts the difficulties of her life, including growing up with an abusive mother, spending time in reform school as an adolescent, struggling with addictions to drugs and alcohol, and coming out as a lesbian.

McCorvey was born Norma Leah Nelson on September 22, 1947, in the bayou country of Lettesworth, Louisiana. Half Cajun and part Native American, she eventually moved with her poor, working-class family to Dallas, where she has since lived most of her life. After an unsuccessful marriage to an abusive husband, she divorced and gave up a daughter to relatives. Wrestling with drug and alcohol addictions amid the counterculture swirl of the 1960s, she later gave up two more children to adoption, including the child she carried when she brought Roeto court.

In September 1969, while working as a carnival freak show barker, McCorvey learned that she was pregnant for the third time and returned to Dallas. Out of work, severely depressed, with no money, she decided to seek an abortion. After being told that abortion was legal in cases of rape or incest, friends advised her to lie and say that she had been raped. However, since no police report of the fictitious rape existed, the ruse did not work. She then went to an illegal abortion clinic but found that it had been closed by the police; all that was left was an abandoned building where "dirty instruments were scattered around the room, and there was dried blood on the floor."

Eventually, McCorvey was referred to sarah weddington and Linda Coffee, young attorneys who were looking for a plaintiff to challenge the Texas abortion law. Weddington herself had been forced to go to Mexico in order to obtain an abortion during the 1960s. McCorvey agreed to participate in a lawsuit against Henry Wade, the Dallas district attorney. Although she still hoped to finish the suit in time to have an abortion, McCorvey told her attorneys, "Let's do it for other women." McCorvey chose to remain anonymous for several reasons: she feared publicity would hurt her five-year-old daughter, her parents were against abortion, and she had lied about being raped. She did not participate in court hearings in order to maintain her anonymity.

On March 3, 1970, when Roewas filed in court, McCorvey was six months pregnant. In June, at twenty-three years of age, she gave birth, and her child went up for adoption. On January 22, 1973, over two years too late to alter the course of her pregnancy, McCorvey learned that she had won her case: the Supreme Court had ruled that the Texas abortion law was unconstitutional.

In 1989, McCorvey decided to ally herself publicly with the abortion rights movement. Shortly before she participated in a large pro-choice rally in Washington, D.C., someone fired gunshots at her house and car, in one of many incidents of harassment she has had to endure since making her identity known. Frightened but undaunted, she joined the April 9 rally and made a speech on Capitol Hill before hundreds of thousands of people. McCorvey worked for a time at a family planning clinic and traveled around the United States giving speeches promoting the reproductive rights of women.

In August 1995, McCorvey announced that she had switched sides on the abortion debate. "I'm pro-life," McCorvey stated. "I think I have always been pro-life, I just didn't know it." McCorvey's reversal was attributed to her new friendship with the Reverend Philip ("Flip") Benham, national director of the militant antiabortion group Operation Rescue. The group had moved its national headquarters into an office next to the clinic where McCorvey worked. After being baptized by Benham, McCorvey declared that she would work on behalf of Operation Rescue.

further readings

McCorvey, Norma, with Andy Meisler. 1994. I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v. Wade, and Freedom of Choice. New York: Harper-Collins.

that a defendant in a pending state criminal case cannot affirmatively challenge in federal court the statutes under which the state is prosecuting him or her (Samuels v. Mackell, 401 U.S. 66, 91 S. Ct. 764, 27 L. Ed. 2d 688 [1971]; Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37, 91 S. Ct. 746, 27 L. Ed. 2d 669 [1971]; Boyle v. Landry, 401 U.S. 77, 91 S. Ct. 758, 27 L. Ed. 2d 696 [1971]).

Justices hugo black and john m. harlan submitted their resignations in September 1971, shortly before the beginning of the term in which the Supreme Court was scheduled to hear the arguments on the abortion cases. The case was first heard in December 1971 by seven justices, though President richard nixon had previously announced the nominations of two new justices, lewis f. powell jr. and william h. rehnquist.

Powell was confirmed as an associate justice by the Senate on December 7, 1971, and Rehnquist was confirmed on December 15. Both were sworn in as associate justices on January 7, 1971, about a month after the Court had originally heard the arguments in Roe. Chief Justice warren e. burger chose Justice Blackmun—who had served for many years as legal counsel to the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota—to write the Court's original opinion, which Blackmun completed in May 1972. Blackmun's opinion would have struck down the Texas law on the grounds of vagueness, and the result of the opinion would have been that the majority of abortion statutes in the United States would have been unconstitutionally vague as well, though the Court would not have considered whether the right to an abortion was a fundamental right. However, Blackmun also recommended that the Court reconsider the case with all nine justices.

Instead of issuing Blackmun's original opinion, the Court decided to rehear the case during the following term. The Court reheard the case beginning October 11, 1972. After the rehearing, the Court, with Blackmun again writing for the majority, found the Texas abortion law to be unconstitutional. It declared that such laws "violate the due process clause, which protects against state action the right to privacy, including [a] woman's qualified right to terminate her pregnancy." Rehnquist, a politically conservative justice, wrote a dissenting opinion.

In its opinion, the Court ruled that the right to terminate a pregnancy is part of a woman's right to privacy. At the same time, however, it declared that "[t]his right is not unqualified and must be considered against important state interests in regulation." The state, the Court argued, "has legitimate interests in protecting both the pregnant woman's health and the potentiality of human life," interests that change in importance as the pregnancy progresses. In the first trimester, the Court said, the state has no interest in regulating the right of a woman to obtain an abortion. In making this decision, the Court pointed to evidence showing that the health of the mother is not endangered by an abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. According to that evidence, women are less likely to die from complications of an abortion conducted in the first trimester than from carrying their pregnancy to term. The Court also found that the state may require that all abortions be performed only by licensed physicians under medically safe conditions.

The Court found that the state's interest in regulating abortion and protecting a pregnant woman's health emerges in the second trimester. "[I]n promoting its interest in the health of the mother," the Court declared, "the state may regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health." It may, for example, impose requirements regarding the qualifications and licensing of those performing abortions; it may also regulate where abortions can be performed. Beyond these rules, the woman, in consultation with her physician, is free to decide whether to end her pregnancy.

In the third trimester, the interest of the state in "the potentiality of human life"—that is, the life of the fetus before birth—makes it possible to regulate and even prohibit abortions except when necessary to save the life or health of the mother. By this period, the fetus is determined to be viable—that is, capable of living outside the womb—and therefore entitled to protection by the state.

The Court did not accept arguments that the fetus be regarded as a person within the meaning of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which declares that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law" (§ 1). "There is no medical or scientific proof that life is present from conception," wrote the Court.

[W]e need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins, when those trained in the respective fields of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus. The judiciary at this point in the

development of man's knowledge is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.

As author of the Court's opinion, Justice Blackmun made it clear that abortion was an extraordinarily difficult issue:

We forthwith acknowledge our awareness of the sensitive and emotional nature of the abortion controversy, of the vigorous opposing views, even among physicians, and of the deep and seemingly absolute convictions that the subject inspires. One's philosophy, one's experiences, one's exposure to the raw edges of human existence, one's religious training, one's attitudes toward life and family and their values, and the moral standards one establishes and seeks to observe, are all likely to influence and to color one's thinking and conclusions about abortion.

In addition, population growth, pollution, poverty, and racial overtones tend to complicate and not to simplify the problem.

Our task, of course, is to resolve the issue by constitutional measurement free of emotion and predilection.

Although the opinion went into the "medical and medical-legal" history of the issue and quoted medical authorities frequently, the Court chose to decide the case on constitutional rather than medical or philosophical grounds. In this case, the crucial constitutional consideration was the right to privacy, which some would argue is as old as the Constitution. The most important precedent for the Roe decision on this issue was the 1965 Supreme Court case griswold v. connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 85 S. Ct. 1678, 14 L. Ed. 2d 510, which clearly set forth a constitutional right to privacy—in this instance, a married couple's right to privacy when deciding whether or not to use contraceptives. Roe was in fact part of a gradual expansion of the right to privacy during the 1960s and 1970s, to include not only a right to freedom from physical searches and seizures, for example, but also a right to make individual decisions free of coercion, whether physical or psychological, especially in matters regarding the family and reproduction.

In his dissent in Roe, Justice Rehnquist differed with the majority on a number of points. For one thing, McCorvey had given birth in 1970 and had given her child up for adoption. He argued that because McCorvey was no longer in the first term of her pregnancy, indeed was no longer pregnant, when her case came before the Supreme Court, the case had become hypothetical rather than actual and therefore outside the jurisdiction of the Court. Rehnquist also argued that the regulation of abortion should be left to the states and that the right of privacy had nothing to do with the case. "I have difficulty in concluding, as the Court does, that the right of 'privacy' is involved in this case," he wrote. "The decision here to break pregnancy into three distinct terms and to outline the permissible restrictions the State may impose in each one, for example, partakes more of judicial legislation than it does of a determination of the intent of the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment." Moreover, in Rehnquist's view, the Texas abortion law met the test of having "a rational relation to a valid state objective." Rehnquist's fellow dissenter in Roe, Justice byron r. white, called the decisions in Doe and Roe "an example of raw judicial power" and "an improvident and extravagant exercise of the power of judicial review" (Doe, 410 U.S. 179 at 221, 93 S. Ct. 762).

The Roe decision has largely been perceived as a victory for the abortion reform and women's rights movements and a defeat for antiabortion forces, but in many ways it was a compromise between the two sides. While antiabortion forces were unhappy with the establishment of a right to abortion for women in the first trimester of pregnancy, pro-abortion groups were displeased with the limits on abortion allowed in the last two trimesters of pregnancy. The Court also compromised in its decision as to when life begins and who is to be defined as a person with full rights under the Constitution. It did not agree with the pro-abortion movement, which declared that life does not begin until birth, or with the antiabortion movement, which maintained that life begins at conception. Instead, it chose to define the rights of the fetus as emerging when it reaches the stage of viability, when it can survive independently outside the womb. In making this decision, some have argued, the Court made personhood subject to change, particularly as science has moved the time of viability further back.

Feminists and women's rights advocates saw Roe as a vindication of women's reproductive rights and a step toward greater equality between the sexes. Such equality, they argued, can happen only when women have the ability to control reproduction. Others, opposed to the decision in Roe, believed that the Supreme Court had overstepped its bounds by effectively making new social policy, a task they felt was better left to elected members of state legislatures. Still others felt that the Court had violated the sanctity of human life by permitting abortion. In any case, Roe has been a far-reaching decision, affecting many spheres of U.S. life, including medicine, religion, and the family.

In the decades following Roe, antiabortion groups mounted continual campaigns to repeal the decision. Despite these challenges, the Supreme Court repeatedly supported the essential elements of that decision, particularly as regards the right to privacy.

further readings

Baker, Hunter. 2001. "Storming the Gates of a Massive Cultural Investment: Reconsidering Roe in Light of Its Flawed Foundation and Undesirable Consequences." Regent University Law Review 14.

Butler, J. Douglas, and David F. Walbert, eds. 1992. Abortion, Medicine, and the Law. 4th ed. New York: Facts on File.

Faux, Marian. 2000. Roe v. Wade: The Untold Story of the Landmark Supreme Court Decision that Made Abortion Legal. New York: Cooper Square Press.

Gonzalez, Jose L. 2001. "The Legitimization of Fetal Tissue Transplantation Research Under Roe v. Wade." Creighton Law Review 34.

Lucas, Ray. 2003. "Forgotten Supreme Court Abortion Cases: Drs. Hawker and Herwitz in the Dock and Defrocked." Pepperdine Law Review. 641.

McCorvey, Norma. 1994. I Am Roe: My Life, Roe v. Wade, and Freedom of Choice. New York: HarperCollins.

Payment, Simone. 2003. Roe v. Wade: The Right to Choose. New York: Rosen.

Rubin, Eva R. 1987. Abortion, Politics and the Courts: Roe v. Wade and Its Aftermath. New York: Greenwood.

Simon, James F. 1995. The Center Holds: The Power Struggle Inside the Rehnquist Court. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Fetal Rights; Fetal Tissue Research; Penumbra; "Roe v. Wade" (Appendix, Milestone); Wattleton, Alice Faye.

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Roe V. Wade


Few U.S. Supreme Court rulings have been as contentious as the Courts 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. This landmark decision not only invalidated a number of state abortion laws, it also served to further divide public opinion with respect to discretionary abortion decisions (Franklin and Kosaki 1989, p. 759).

A number of states reformed their abortion statutes to broaden access to legal abortions in the late 1960s. Some of these laws, for example, permitted abortion when a womans health was in danger as opposed to only her life. Some reforms, moreover, provided for legal abortions if a woman had been a victim of rape or incest, as well as in situations in which a fetal defect was present (Tribe 1991, p. 42). Of course, prior to Roe, a number of states, including Texas, prohibited abortions except when a womans life was in danger.

In addition to a perceived need for further abortion law reform, developments in the Supreme Courts privacy doctrine with respect to the use and distribution of contraceptives provided constitutional arguments that could potentially be applied to the expansion of abortion rights (Nossiff 2001, p. 41). In Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), the Supreme Court held that a Connecticut statute prohibiting the use of contraceptives violated a married couples constitutional right to privacy. In Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972), the Court recognized that single persons also enjoy a right to privacy with respect to reproductive decisions when it struck down a Massachusetts law banning the provision of contraceptives to unmarried persons in order to prevent pregnancy.

The legal question as to whether a womans privacy right could extend to her decision to terminate a pregnancy was presented to the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. Jane Roe, who would later reveal her identity as Norma McCorvey, was pregnant and wanted to obtain an abortion in Texas, her state of residence. Texas law, however, prohibited abortions except when necessary to preserve the mothers life. McCorveys pregnancy did not threaten her life, nor did she have the finances to travel to a state in which abortion was legal. A Dallas attorney referred McCorvey to Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee, two attorneys who were preparing a legal challenge to the Texas abortion laws. The case, which eventually became a class-action lawsuit, also involved a married couple dubbed John and Mary Doe. They argued that the law interfered with their marital relationship since Marys physician had cautioned her about becoming pregnant but directed her to refrain from using birth control pills because of a medical condition. Under Texas law, however, abortion would be a foreclosed option for the couple in the event of an unintended pregnancy. James Hallford, a physician who was charged with violating the Texas abortion laws, also participated in the lawsuit. The plaintiffs sought a declaration that the Texas laws were unconstitutional, as well as an injunction to prevent their enforcement (Weddington 1992, pp. 5062).

Jay Floyd, representing the Texas Office of the Attorney General, raised important challenges concerning the plaintiffs standing to sue and the timing of the lawsuit. With respect to the merits, he argued that there was no constitutional right to an abortion and that the state had a compelling interest in protecting the fetus (Weddington 1992, p. 66). The representative for the district attorneys office argued further that abortion was an appropriate area for state regulation and also suggested that the privacy interests of women seeking abortions must give way to the protection of the unborn (Weddington 1992, pp. 6566).

Although the three-judge trial court agreed with Floyds argument that John and Mary Doe did not have standing to sue, the court held that Roe and Hallford could pursue their claims. On the merits, the court found that the laws violated the constitutional right of individuals to determine whether they wanted children; however, it refused to issue the plaintiffs request for an injunction. Dallas County district attorney Henry Wades assertion that he would continue to enforce the contested law assisted Weddingtons efforts in obtaining a Supreme Court review of the decision (Weddington 1992, pp. 6769).

The Supreme Court first heard oral arguments in Roe in 1971. However, the justices agreed that the case should be reargued to allow newly appointed justices William Rehnquist (19242005) and Lewis Powell (19071998) to take part in the decision. Accordingly, the Court issued its landmark decision in 1973. Writing for a seven-member majority, Justice Harry Blackmun (19081999) argued that a constitutional right of privacy is broad enough to encompass a womans decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. (410 U.S. 113, 153). However, the majority also recognized that the state has legitimate interests with respect to health, medical standards, and potential life that might justify regulating abortion at certain points (410 U.S. 113, 154).

Specifically, Blackmun articulated a trimester framework to evaluate when these state interests could justify regulation of a womans decision to have an abortion. During the first trimester of a womans pregnancy, when the risk of mortality from an abortion is low relative to the risk of childbirth, the Court held that the abortion decision must be left to the medical judgment of a womans doctor (410 U.S. 113, 164). However, by the second trimester, the state could regulate abortions in order to protect maternal health (410 U.S. 113, 163). Finally, the states interest in protecting potential life could justify regulation when the fetus reaches the stage of viability, defined as the point at which it has the capability of meaningful life outside the mothers womb. At this stage, Blackmun held that the state could prohibit abortion so long as exceptions were made to preserve the life or health of the mother (410 U.S. 113, 154).

While many individuals and groups defended the Supreme Courts decision in Roe, others criticized the ruling in the hope of seeing it limited or overruled. At the state level, for example, attempts to restrict access to abortion have been made through laws requiring parental or spousal notification or consent, informed consent, waiting periods, and tests to determine fetal viability, as well as through laws prohibiting public financing or assistance for abortion procedures (Nossiff 2001, p. 148; Tribe 1991, p. 144). McCorvey herself later backed away from her affiliation with the Roe decision and the pro-choice movement. In 1995 McCorvey was baptized by the national director of Operation Rescue, a well-known organization opposing abortion rights in the United States (New York Times 1995, p. A12), and in 2003 she unsuccessfully petitioned a federal court to reconsider the result announced in Roe (New York Sun 2003, p. 6).

The battle over abortion rights and the Roe decision has also colored the Supreme Court judicial selection process. Nominees to the Court after Roe have been scrutinized concerning their positions on privacy rights generally and their opinion of Roe specifically. Although John Roberts was tapped to replace Chief Justice Rehnquist in 2005, particular concern was raised that Justice Sandra Day OConnors replacement in 2006, Samuel Alito, might provide the Court with the votes needed to overrule this controversial decision. However, as legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin (2005, p. 81) noted, a number of Republican-appointed justices have joined the Court since Roe, and, although the Court has revisited the topic of abortion rights in a number of cases, it has yet to overrule the decision.

SEE ALSO Abortion; Supreme Court, U.S.;Womens Movement


Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438 (1972).

Franklin, Charles H., and Liane C. Kosaki. 1989. Republican Schoolmaster: The U.S. Supreme Court, Public Opinion, and Abortion. American Political Science Review 83 (3): 751771.

Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

New York Sun. 2003. Roes Regrets. June 23: 6.

New York Times. 1995. Jane Roe Joins Anti-Abortion Group. August 11: A12.

Nossiff, Rosemary. 2001. Before Roe: Abortion Policy in the States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

OBrien, David M. 1993. A Struggle for Power. In Storm Center: The Supreme Court in American Politics, 3rd ed., 2364. New York: Norton.

Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

Toobin, Jeffrey. 2005. Still Standing: The Resilience of Roe v. Wade. New Yorker. November 28: 7081.

Tribe, Laurence H. 1991. Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes. New York: Norton.

Weddington, Sarah. 1992. A Question of Choice. New York: Putnams.

Erin B. Kaheny

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ROE V. WADE, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), the landmark case establishing a woman's constitutional right to an abortion, was initiated by attorneys Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee with Norma McCorvey as one of the plaintiffs. A single pregnant woman known as "Jane Roe" to protect her privacy, McCorvey had been denied an abortion under a Texas law. The 7 to 3 decision, which also covered Doe v. Bolton, a Georgia case, upheld federal appeals court's decisions striking down provisions of both the Texas and Georgia laws. Effectively rendered unconstitutional were all statutes that either prohibited abortion (Texas) or encumbered legal abortions in such excessive regulation as to make then virtually unattainable (Georgia).

The decision was the culmination of ongoing efforts of several groups seeking decriminalization and reflected changing public opinion about abortion. Support for legal reform had grown stronger when the news broke that the drug thalidomide, extensively prescribed to alleviate morning sickness in the early stages of pregnancy, produced severe physical defects in children. In a much publicized incident, Sherry Finkbine, an Arizona woman who had taken thalidomide, requested an abortion with the support of her doctors. Because of the threat of prosecution by local authorities, the Finkbines, seeking a more favorable legal climate, fled to Sweden where abortion was legal. Her plight dramatized to both the medical profession and ordinary citizens the need for legal change, as did figures on illegal abortions, which ranged from 200,000 to 1,200,000 annually. Fatalities for the women undergoing the procedure, always estimates, were high. In 1955, the annual American loss of women's lives was put at from three thousand to eight thousand.

The justices, no longer able to avoid the issue, agonized over the decision—none more than Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion resting the right to an abortion on the right to privacy. The right to privacy in sexual and reproductive matters, while not specified in the Bill of Rights, had recently evolved. Building on Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), a case involving the use of birth control by a married couple, abortion rights lawyers had persuaded the lower courts to extend the right of privacy implied in the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against unreasonable searches to other reproductive decisions, notably whether to carry a fetus to term. That right, however, was never intended by the Court to be absolute. After much internal debate concerning the cutoff point at which the state's interest in protecting potential life should take precedence over a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy, the majority reached a compromise that Blackmun tied to the trimester system. During the first three months of pregnancy, a woman was to be free to make the decision in consultation with her doctor. In the second trimester, the states could regulate abortion in order to protect maternal health, but could not prohibit the procedure. While rejecting the notion that the fetus from the moment of conception was a constitutionally protected "person" under the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court used the stage in fetal development when survival was possible outside the woman's body as the point at which state interest in protecting potential life took precedence. Since viability occurred at approximately the end of six months, Roe stipulated that states could prohibit abortions in the third trimester.

The decision, which imposed the Court's regulatory formula upon the states, evoked intense resentment and high praise. Irate legislators charged that their law-making function had been usurped. Abortion rights supporters, dismayed that only three states had legalized abortion by 1970, rejoiced. Catholic clergy attacked the decision as sanctioning the taking of a human life, while mainline Protestant clergy appreciated the option it offered the anguished women they counseled. Legal critics found the fragile textual backing for privacy to be weak constitutional grounding for abortion rights and the trimester formula to be problematic. Others argued that the Court had moved too far too fast. Its mistake, they argued, was abandoning an incremental approach to the abortion issue that would have produced smaller changes over time, allowing the public time to adjust. Pro-choice attorneys, while elated by the scope of the decision, also had legal concerns. Fearful that relying on privacy instead of equal protection made the decision constitutionally vulnerable, they further criticized Roe as too medicalized, privileging physicians' autonomy over women's. Concerned that state regulation in later trimesters would not take into account the needs of pregnant woman, feminists warned that the Court's compromise could lead to government coercion and involuntary motherhood.

What was indisputable was the immediate formation of a grassroots movement by opponents eager to erode the abortion rights conferred in Roe. Although the Court initially rejected state restrictions, in 1980 it upheld the "Hyde Amendment" by which Congress refused to fund even medically necessary abortions of indigent women (Harris v. Mc Rae, 488 U.S. 297), a practice that many states followed. And in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services (1989), the Court, by a 5 to 3 vote, upheld the right of Missouri legislators to deny the use of public employees and facilities to perform or assist abortions. In Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992), the Court finally reaffirmed Roe in a 5 to 3 vote. But though the formal right to an abortion had survived, other tactics of the antiabortion movement had reduced it as a practical option, especially for poor and rural women.


Garrow, David J. Liberty and Sexuality: The Right to Privacy and the Making of Roe v. Wade. Updated and with a new preface and epilogue. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998.

Petchesky, Rosalind P. Abortion and Woman's Choice: The State, Sexuality, and Reproductive Freedom. Rev. ed. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990.

Siegel, Reva. "Reasoning from the Body: A Historical Perspective on Abortion Regulation and Questions of Equal Protection," 44 (Jan. 1992): 261–381.

Jane SherronDe Hart

See alsoAbortion ; Equal Rights Amendment .

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Roe v. Wade


Opinion of U.S. District Court, N.D. Texas, June 17, 1970 . . . . . . . .499

Briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court

Brief for Appellant . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .505

Brief for Appellee . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .517

Supplemental Brief for Appellants . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .535

Opinion of the Supreme Court, January 22, 1973 . . . . . . . . . . . . . .542




This section allows readers to investigate the facts, the arguments, and the legal reasoning that produced the Roe v. Wade decision. It also sheds light on the roles and required skills of attorneys and judges in resolving disputes.

As you read this section, you may wish to consider the following issues:

  • How did the appellant's description of the issues before the Court, or questions presented, differ from the appellee's descriptions?
  • How did the courts and the two parties differ in describing the meaning of particular prior cases to the present case?
  • How did the holdings (conclusions of law) of the district court differ from those of the Supreme Court?
  • On what points in the Supreme Court's majority opinion do the concurring and dissenting justices agree and disagree?
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Roe versus Wade may be the most well known and the most controversial decision of the modern Supreme Court. With this decision, the Court recognized a woman's right to obtain an abortion under certain circumstances. Virtually from the moment it was handed down, Roe v. Wade has divided lawyers, politicians, and the public into those who support the decision and those who would like it overturned, either by the Supreme Court itself or by act of the legislature. A judge's or politician's position on the subject of abortion has played a major role in countless appointments and elections. After the decision and for the rest of his life, the opinion brought its author, Justice Harry Blackmun, an unending stream of mail both praising and vilifying him for the decision.

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"Roe v. Wade." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . 27 Oct. 2016 <>.

"Roe v. Wade." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . (October 27, 2016).

"Roe v. Wade." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Retrieved October 27, 2016 from

Roe v. Wade

Roe v. Wade, case decided in 1973 by the U.S. Supreme Court. Along with Doe v. Bolton, this decision legalized abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy. The decision, written by Justice Harry Blackmun and based on the residual right of privacy, struck down dozens of state antiabortion statutes. The decision was based on two cases, that of an unmarried woman from Texas, where abortion was illegal unless the mother's life was at risk, and that of a poor, married mother of three from Georgia, where state law required permission for an abortion from a panel of doctors and hospital officials. While establishing the right to an abortion, this decision gave states the right to intervene in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy to protect the woman and the "potential" life of the unborn child. Denounced by the National Council of Bishops, the decision gave rise to a vocal antiabortion movement that put pressure on the courts and created an anti-Roe litmus test for the judicial appointments of the Reagan and Bush administrations (1981–93). In a 1989 case, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the court, while not striking down Roe, limited its scope, permitting states greater latitude in regulating and restricting abortions. Then in 1992, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the court reaffirmed the abortion rights granted in Roe v. Wade, while permitting further restrictions.

See N. McCorvey with A. Meisler, I Am Roe (1994); N. E. H. Hull and P. C. Hoffer, Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History (2001, rev. ed. 2010).

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"Roe v. Wade." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 27 Oct. 2016 <>.

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